On the edge of adulthood: Young people's school and out-of-school experiences at 16

Publication Details

Competent Children, Competent Learners is a longitudinal study which began in 1993 and follows the progress of a sample of around 500 New Zealand young people from early childhood education through schooling and beyond. This is the main report from the age-16 phase of the study and details students’ participation in school, their experiences of learning, and their achievement in terms of the study’s competency measures and their NCEA results. It also describes overall patterns of family life, friendships and interests out of school at age 16.

Author(s): Cathy Wylie, Rosemary Hipkins and Edith Hodgen, New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Date Published: May 2009

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On the edge of adulthood: young people’s school and out-of-school experiences at 16 is the major report from the age-16 phase of the longitudinal Competent Children, Competent Learners study undertaken by New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) and funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Education and NZCER. Here we summarise the main findings of this comprehensive report. We start with an overall description of key aspects of the 16-year-olds’ participation in school, their experiences of learning, and achievements. Then we describe overall patterns of family life, friendships, and interests out of school. Finally, we look at the results of our statistical analyses to see what light they shed on differences in young people’s patterns of school experience and performance.

Who took part in the age-16 phase of this study?

The Competent Children, Competent Learners study has followed a cohort of Wellington region students from their final months of early childhood education through their school years. At age 16, 447 of the sample took part. Thirty-five percent of the cohort were in Year 11, 58 percent in Year 12, and 6 percent had already left school. Most were still living in the Wellington region, but nine percent were living in other parts of New Zealand. The Year 11 participants were attending 44 different schools, and the Year 12 participants, 61 different schools.

The descriptive picture we provide here is not intended to be representative of all New Zealand 16-year-olds, since our sample was originally drawn to be representative of different types of ECE experience, rather than to be nationally representative in terms of social characteristics. Compared to the national average, our sample has higher proportions of young people from high-income families, and those whose mothers have trade or tertiary-level qualifications, and lower proportions of Māori and Pacific young people, and those attending low-decile schools. Where there are differences in experiences and perceptions associated with these social and school characteristics, our findings will give probably a somewhat more positive picture than a sample that had been drawn to be representative of population and school characteristics.

However, we have sufficient numbers of young people in different social groups and with different kinds of experience to be able to undertake analysis of how such differences can contribute to differences in competency levels, school engagement, and so on.

School participation and engagement

A sizeable minority of the age-16 students appeared to be at school, but not really engaged in what it had to offer. Just under half the students had very good or excellent attendance at school, and 22 percent had good attendance levels. But 26 percent had only fair or poor attendance. Five percent of the parents had worked with their child’s school to stop their child’s truancy. Students with only fair or poor attendance tended to also have less positive approaches to school work and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) assessments, and to gain fewer NCEA credits.

By age 16, 18 percent of those still at school would like to leave school as soon as they could, 25 percent were usually or always restless, and 36 percent were usually or always bored.

However, around two-thirds to three-quarters of the age-16 students said they usually or always liked their teachers, enjoyed learning, and kept out of trouble. Few admitted to skipping classes as a general pattern (those with poor attendance records seemed more likely to stay away from school altogether rather than be selective about what they missed).

Around 90 percent usually or always felt safe at school, felt they belonged, and thought it important to do their best. Eighty percent thought they were usually or always treated as an individual. More than half also thought they were treated as an adult, as well as getting all the help they needed. They were more likely to see opportunities to take leadership roles than that their views on how to improve their classes or school were actively solicited.

Few of the students found school to be a constant site of loneliness, sadness, or rejection of their key beliefs. Most had good friends at their school. And while more than half thought that they could improve the quality of their work if they made more effort, they did not feel that the amount of work they had to do was to blame.

Overall, the proportion of students with positive views of school did not decrease between the ages of 14 and 16—the exception was an increase in reported restlessness.

Parent views

Just 55 percent of parents thought their child enjoyed school, cf. 65 percent at age 14, and 75 percent at age 12. Parent views of the support their child had from their current teachers were as positive as they had been two years earlier: 51 percent rated the support of these teachers gave for their child’s learning as 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale, and 31 percent did so for teachers’ support for their child’s emotional wellbeing. Ten percent thought their child had no or very little support for their learning, and 19 percent, for their emotional wellbeing. Parents of Māori or Pacific children were less positive about their child’s school experiences, and only a third were satisfied with their child’s school progress.

Fifty-nine percent of the parents overall were satisfied with their child’s progress at school, much the same as for the students at Year 10 when they were aged 14, and somewhat lower than the 69 percent at Year 9 or at age 12, when they were in Years 7 or 8. Twenty-two percent expressed mixed views, and 19 percent were not at all satisfied. As in earlier phases of this project, the main reasons for mixed views or dissatisfaction were that the student was not making good progress (27 percent), was bored or repeating work (10 percent), the quality of teachers (4 percent), and the student lacking confidence or being unhappy at school (4 percent).

But—the early school leavers

Six percent of the young people had left school already at the age of 16. The reasons they left were more “push” from school—because they were bored, didn’t like their teachers, or got into trouble, than “pull” towards a more appealing alternative, such as a particular occupation. While they were generally optimistic, most thought that not having qualifications, skills, or relevant work experience would stop them having the kind of life they wanted, and 59 percent wished they had had more guidance on their school subjects. Most of their parents regretted that they had left school early. Parents of school leavers were less likely to think they were generally happy (39 percent cf. 86 percent of school stayers’ parents), and only 29 percent had no concerns at all about their child cf. 59 percent of the parents of school stayers. Some aspects where parents of school leavers were three or four times more likely to note a particular concern were around their child having unsuitable friends, or loneliness, a lack of interests, or unsuitable interests, getting into trouble, having relationships that included sex, being reckless, and using illegal substances.

The female school leaver group stands out as the group that was least happy in what they were doing. Female school leavers were more likely to be reported as generally unhappy (31 percent cf. no male school leavers), and to be unsettled by something (77 percent cf. 33 percent of the males school leavers). This gender difference was not evident among the school stayers. Parents saw romantic or sexual relationships, and relations with their friends as being the source of their being upset.

Two-thirds of the school leaver group had low school motivation levels at age 14, compared with 30 percent of those who stayed on at school, and not surprisingly, they did not wish to return to school. Their job and training interests were largely unrelated to what they had done at school, and one of the things they relished was learning things now that seemed “relevant” and “real life.”

Experiences of learning in school

We asked the school students and the teachers of the classes the students named as their most enjoyed, least enjoyed, and their English class to give their perspectives of the frequency of a range of teaching and learning practices in these classes. At age 14, we had gathered such information on three compulsory subjects, English, mathematics, and science. At age 16, with students less bound by compulsory subjects, we had to think of a different way to capture learning experiences. Our choice turned out to yield some additional and valuable insights.

Students’ most enjoyed subjects were not confined to a few content areas—they spanned a wide range. What they had in common was that they offered students the kind of learning experiences that students valued—and that at the same time would be most likely to build the key competencies now emphasised in the revised New Zealand Curriculum. What students valued included relevant examples (of the kind the school leavers had not found in their own school experience), practice at thinking about what was being learnt and working with others in learning, responsibility for setting goals—as well as the more traditional ways that teachers can support students, such as providing specific feedback and ensuring that students understand a particular topic. Teachers who provided positive learning environments were also well liked by their students, and their classes seemed to have fewer behavioural issues, indicating that they had created learning contexts where peers supported one another’s learning, rather than distracting them from it, as they tended to do more in the least enjoyed classes.

We did not find that the most enjoyed classes were necessarily easier, though they did provide environments in which students felt more confident about their learning.

Mathematics and science classes did feature more among the classes that students did not enjoy; but the fact that these subjects also featured among the most enjoyed classes indicates that they can be taught in a way that encourages student engagement in learning, and the development of the key competencies as well as “academic” content. Previous reports from this project have shown that development of those key competencies supports academic learning (and vice versa), and suggested the value of approaching teaching to provide both as “two sides of the same coin” rather than seeing them as separate content areas, or either/or choices.

Nonetheless, even among the most enjoyed classes, we found that encouragement of the key competencies was not widespread, indicating that this aspect of the revised New Zealand Curriculum will need particular and careful support over the next few years.

The second unanticipated gain from asking students about three different classes was that it showed just how different their experiences could be within the same year level, and the same school. Most students did not experience classes that were equally engaging or supportive.

Subject choice

Students do not seem to choose subjects on the reputation of their teachers, however (that might not always be known). Nor do they seem to choose on the basis of the number or type of NCEA credits, or how easy they think those will be. Their choice is to some extent framed by what a particular school can provide, and the options it makes available at the same time in the timetable. The senior managers of the schools in the study were more likely to think their school was strong in offering academic subjects than in offering a broad range of subject choices or offering vocational subjects.

Choices could also be constrained by previous achievement in in-school assessments or the NCEA, and previous attitudes shown in class. Deans appeared to play somewhat more of a part than class teachers in student choices. As they did at age 14, the majority of students continued to choose subjects they thought would be interesting for them, or lead to a career. The main reasons for dropping a subject were because they did not enjoy it or had found it difficult. A fifth of the students dropped a subject to try something new.

Family advice remained more important to students than advice provided by the school (or their friends). However, once choices had been made it seems parental opinion was seldom a reason for a student to drop a subject between years—and neither was advice from teachers or friends.

A quarter of the students wished they had had more guidance with their subject choice, mainly because the choices they had made had closed pathways for them.

Although few schools put students into clearly differentiated “streams” by ability any longer, subject choices do show a continuing differentiation in terms of focus and likely future pathway. We found that the students could be clustered into four broad groups. Those who were mainly taking “traditional arts” subjects, and those who were mainly taking “traditional science” subjects —and in each of these clusters, mainly taking “traditional” mathematics and English courses— were following the academic–tertiary study pathway, with subjects likely to be assessed with achievement standards. The two other clusters, “contextual” and “vocational”, are more related to particular occupations and current interests, and the “alternative” versions of mathematics and English that they offer are more likely to focus on practical presentations and uses.


The NCEA qualification that was introduced in 2002 was intended to provide more flexibility both in course design (teachers can decide which standards to include, and how many will be unit or achievement, and how many will be internally or externally assessed), and for students and teachers deciding when students should be assessed for a particular standard. Each standard has a number of credits attached to it, at one of the three NCEA levels. We found that most students attempted far more credits than they needed for each NCEA qualification level, raising some questions about course structures, or the way credits are attached to standards.

The number of credits students are offered to attempt does differ between the subject clusters, with lower numbers both attempted and gained among the “contextual” and “vocational” cluster students. However, the success rate for these students was almost as high as it was for those in the two traditional academic clusters, though they may take longer to gain the number of credits needed for Levels 1 and 2 NCEA qualifications, indicating that the NCEA is providing these students with more opportunities to see themselves as successful learners, and thus encouraging among all students, and not just those taking the traditional academic path, the development of “lifelong learning” dispositions.

Although much has been made about the ability of students to undertake a reassessment or skip assessments, we did not find much evidence that either of these is common.

How well does the NCEA measure student ability? Because we have used more traditional forms of assessment in our competency measures, we were able to compare how well individual students fared on these measures with their NCEA results. We found considerable consistency between the two. But the consistency was not perfect, any more than it was between teacher and parent judgements of a young person’s attitudes, because each is using a different measure, within a different context. These differences underline the importance of considering context when making judgements or decisions based on individual performance, and the value of seeking additional information about individuals where we are concerned about lapses from previous performance or want to improve performance.

Though parent views about the NCEA were mixed, most parents thought that their children were positive about it. Their views were mixed as to whether their child was interested in work that was unrelated to credits, and did the minimum required to get the credits (as they might have done in the previous qualification regime); or whether they would work hard regardless of whether a topic was being assessed and always strive for excellence. All but a small proportion of the parents thought their children coped with assessment pressures, both internal and external. Just over half also thought their child was organised and well prepared for assessments. Parents’ views did not indicate that student levels of intrinsic motivation toward their work were negatively affected.

Some of the differences in parent views of the NCEA was related to how satisfied the parents were with their child’s school progress. Parents who were satisfied with their child’s progress were more likely to have positive views about the NCEA

The patterns of views here do indicate the importance of giving parents more information about the NCEA; they also suggest that views about the NCEA may be formed by things that are not to do with the structure per se of the new qualification.

Friendships, experiences, and interests

The school leavers were not the only ones who were pushing into adulthood through such things as experimenting with sex, more romantic relationships, and experiments with drugs. Here we see some marked changes from age 14. Half had fallen in love over the past year. Nine percent had had sex in the past year at age 14; now 34 percent had, and 11 percent had had sex when they did not want to.

Almost half the young people had never drunk alcohol at age 14; now only 16 percent had not done so in the past year. Nineteen percent had done something they regretted while drunk two years earlier; now 51 percent had.

But the other behaviours we asked about, that can pose some risk in terms of keeping a focus on learning, or losing control, had not changed.

Most of the young people did not experience being bullied or hassled; but around 10 percent did experience this as something that occurred sometimes or more often over the past year. Thirty percent of Māori/Pacific students said they had been hassled about their culture over the past year, cf. 13 percent of Päkehä/Asian students. Around a third sometimes or more often felt left out of things.

Most of the young people had been bored at least sometimes; around two-thirds also felt they had not had enough money at least sometimes, and around half, not enough freedom. Two-thirds had lost a friend (as they had also gained new ones). Around two-thirds had also lost their temper at least once, or fought with others at home.

Friendship was very important in the young people’s lives. Some activities with friends were much the same across adolescence: simply hanging out together topped the list at each age. But there were some changes at age 16: a jump in going to parties or on holiday together, a steady rise in shopping together, and in watching TV or DVDs together; a continued decline in informal physical activity. Support and trust is the most valued aspect of friendships at age 16; this has grown steadily in importance since age 12. Sharing interests is less important; the fact that a friendship is long lasting has become more important for some.

All but 6 percent of the young people had someone they could talk to about what happened to them at school (or, if they had left school, in their life)—much the same proportion as at ages 12 and 14. Between ages 12 and 14 there was a big change in who this was—a turn to friends and away somewhat from mothers—and this continued at age 16.

At age 16, 41 percent of the young people wanted a satisfying life; 37 percent wanted to stand out in some way; and 23 percent had aspirational values. These are much the same proportions as they were two years earlier. And, as two years earlier, we found that the values young people had were linked to their participation and engagement in school, their achievement, and their patterns of relationships with others.

Achievement (in and out of school, but particularly academic and sports achievement) was the most important source of satisfaction for the young people (68 percent), followed by recognition from others (not linked to achievement per se), 16 percent, enjoyment (11 percent), and something that felt like a breakthrough, or a step on the way to the future (6 percent).

Conversely, when we asked them what was the least satisfying thing they had done over the past year, it was academic failure or difficulty that headed the list (30 percent), followed by failure or difficulty in the arts (8 percent), sport (6 percent), getting into trouble (7 percent), losing control or the balance of things in their life (6 percent), or having a relationship difficulty (6 percent). However, 34 percent of the students could not think of anything here.

How do 16-year-olds spend their time? Activities with friends are frequent. Watching television may not be seen as a main interest, yet it is part of daily life for two-thirds of the young people. (Average hours per day were 2.4 hours for those who had left school, and 2.07 hours for those at school, slightly less for the latter than at ages 12 and 14.) Reading continues to decline as part of daily life, as does homework. Active participation in sport has also dropped back, though individual exercise continued to be a part of everyday life for just over a third of the young people. Forty-five percent of the 16-year-olds at school had paid work at least once a week.

Frequency of computer use had not increased since age 14—and perhaps surprisingly, computer-based games took less time than they had two years before. The average length of time spent using the computer each week was 7.92 hours (s.d. 7.6 hours) for those at school, and 5.22 hours (s.d. 3.98 hours) for those who had left school. Time spent on the computer has gradually increased: at age 12 the average was 3.8 hours, and at age 14, 6.5 hours a week. For around half the young people, ICT was a tool they used at least once a week. It was a tool that supported a range of uses: particularly communication, gaining something for further use (music, pictures), gaining information (both purposefully and through browsing), entertainment, and as a way of doing some things faster. It was not in much use to support school-based or other communities, and some of the more recent and much heralded possibilities, e.g. digital stories or blogging sites, were rare.

Almost all the students had a cellphone, and their own source of music or radio; televisions that they could decide to use to watch when and what they wanted were less common. Perhaps surprisingly, few had their own computer, or access to the Internet (unless through their cellphone).


Around three-quarters of the young people felt included in their families: they felt comfortable, treated fairly, felt they could get help if they needed, and they were asked about what they did. The young people also showed high levels of trust in their parents, and the relationships for most were warm and loving. Levels of help and support were a little lower than levels of trust and warmth.

Most could talk with their parents about their hopes and plans for the future; around two-thirds had mothers who could tell when they were upset. Less than half however shared their problems and troubles with their parents—though most felt they could get help if they needed help—and only a third thought their parents checked whether they had done their homework (if at school) or what they needed to do (if they had left school).

Most young people did not think they were under family pressure to change or conform. Around a third thought their family worried too much about what they did with their friends or thought that home was more friendly if they did what their parents wanted them to do, though fewer thought that than they had at age 14. Otherwise, family pressure levels were much the same as at age 14.

Almost all the young people were living at home, and almost all had some rules and expectations about their behaviour. Just under half said there were rules or expectations for at least 10 of the 18 aspects we asked about. As at age 14, most likely were rules around the use of alcohol, language, study, housework, and a time to be home by. But at age 16, many had fewer parental rules or expectations than at age 14.

All but 14 percent of the 16-year-olds had broken one of their parental rules at some stage: somewhat more than the 3 percent who said they had never broken a parental rule at age 14. Parents were more likely now to tell their adolescents off; there may have been slightly less negotiation or discussion, and more attention to circumstances. Otherwise, parental responses to their 16-year-olds breaking their rules are much the same as two years earlier.

Twenty percent of the students spent at least some time between two homes—half of these said the rules were different in each home: some less strict, some more strict. Four percent had a shared parenting arrangement, and 3 percent spent a weekend or week night in a second household. The other arrangements were timed for school holidays or some weekends (7 percent); 4 percent had regular visits with their other parent, and 3 percent, irregular visits. Two percent also spent time in a third household.

Thirty-eight percent of the 16-year-old students came home to an empty house, up from 25 percent at age 14, and 15 percent at age 12. Parents were home to greet 59 percent of the students; 27 percent came home to a younger sibling, and 17 percent to an older sibling (down from 29 percent at age 14). A few came home to a relative or a friend.

Parent views give a similar picture to that given by the young people: continued closeness and support, without trying to control behaviour, and leaving it up to the young person to raise things they wanted to raise. Parents may feel they know more about their child’s moods than the young person feels they know.

Eighty-three percent of the parents thought their child was generally happy; 13 percent said their happiness varied, and 3 percent thought their child was generally unhappy. We also asked parents if they had any concerns or worries about 14 aspects of their child’s life. Just over half the parents had no concerns at all about their child; another 33 percent had low-level concerns. Generally, their level of concern was lower than it had been at age 14.

Three-quarters said their child was more mature at 16 than at 14: more responsible, hard working, confident, or independent. Twenty-seven percent mentioned growth in dimensions such as humour, kindness, and sensitivity. Five percent said relations with their child had improved. Some were contesting parental authority, showing their parents little respect (7 percent); some had fallen in love or had a more social life (5–6 percent); some were battling with mood swings or depression (4 percent); some were more materialistic (4 percent); and some were remaining naïve and easily led (3 percent). Three of the girls had become pregnant.

Seventy-four percent of the parents said their relationship with their child had changed over the two years: mainly, it had become more adult (56 percent of this group), or closer (25 percent); but for some it had become more distant (15 percent), or more conflicted (3 percent).

More “adult” activities were reported as those shared between parents and their age-16 children: eating together, talking—and, interestingly, there was more transporting of students to their activities than there had been at age 14. The trends to less time on shared interests or hobbies, less time on shared physical activity, and less time working on homework together evident at age 14 continued.

Patterns over time

By age 16, when the young people in this study were undertaking NCEA assessments, much of their learning identities was already shaped. So how they responded to these assessments, as well as to their classes, did carry much of what they had gained from their previous experiences: the attitudes they took to school and learning, previous success at school (both attitudes and success reflecting the kinds of opportunities they had had to learn). To succeed and make the most of secondary school years generally requires successful primary school years, and before that, rich early learning opportunities.

Most of the information we have at a national level about achievement gaps reports them in terms of social characteristics, particularly gender and ethnicity. On the one hand, our analyses are able to shed some light on why that might be so, by looking at behaviours and experiences that are related to these differences; and on the other hand, to show that other factors play a larger part than these two in accounting for differences in student performance. This underpins the earlier point that to address issues of nonengagement or lack of achievement, we need to look behind group labels, and to use more than one source of information on how students and young people respond to different contexts.

Some of the young people’s responses indicated that they had started to establish themselves as young people who gained a sense of themselves through risky behaviour and having friends who also made meaning of their lives through such behaviour, at the expense of making the most of what school could offer. Our analyses certainly point to risky behaviour in early and mid adolescence as a key indicator of low performance, both in senior school qualifications and on our measures of cognitive and attiudinal competencies. Some of those who seemed to identify themselves as this kind of risk taker (as opposed to taking risks in new learning) had built up this identity over years; others seemed to have been attracted to this identity more recently, in early adolescence.

In fact we saw much more consistency between age 14 and age 16, than we saw between age 12 and age 14. Early adolescence appears to be a key period for consolidating learning identities, and laying down paths and values in out-of-school activities and relationships that support these. On the negative side, high scores for risky behaviour and having friends with such behaviour as well were much more likely at 16 if the same patterns were there at 14; the same was true for having “standing out” values at the expense of values that found purpose in good relationships with others, and meaningful work.

But the 16-year-olds’ performance was not just the sum of their previous experiences or their current ways of spending time out of school. We also found that current levels of engagement with school had some part in student success on senior school qualifications.

One of the key findings of this report, as in earlier reports from the Competent Children, Competent Learners study, is that though we can trace some different paths through time, through how children and then young people spend their time, the habits and competencies they develop through that use of time, we do not see entirely predictable trajectories or entirely separate groups of young people. We can discern some of the signs of disengagement and turning to behaviours and relationships that are unlikely to provide positive meaning for the future. If asked to provide some quick indicators that things are going well in childhood, we would point to the enjoyment of reading (and not just the fact of reading), to having some interests that provide goals and challenge, take place within relationships, have a dimension of communication or use of symbols, and can also provide experiences of achievement. Conversely, two very quick indicators that things may not go well for a child in future are being too dependent on television or computer games as a way to spend time, or becoming involved in bullying.

What our analyses cannot provide are recipes, with precise amounts guaranteed to produce a satisfactory result. The contexts in which children and young people act and experience also have a bearing. Thus—to take a simple example—sports provide a context for the development of competencies and relationships; they are the extracurricular activity most likely to be offered by schools, with opportunities for young people to also gain important experience by taking responsibility and stepping up to leadership. But the opportunities for consolidation of a positive learning identity can differ. Picture the sports player who comes home and talks with his or her family about both the game and other things, who celebrates with friends but without getting drunk and in that state taking risks that would not seem so manageable or attractive when sober, and who finds enjoyed learning opportunities in school classes. Then picture his or her team mate who has nothing but the game and the celebration, and whose classes do not ask him or her to be fully involved in learning.

The fact that learning identities have consolidated by the senior secondary school but still contain fluidity, and openness to experience, gives continued optimism. It also means we need to look at the whole of a young person’s life, and what gives them meaning. Only then will we see the particular possibilities, as well as potential risks. We need to see a wider (or deeper) picture to gauge whether we are providing learning opportunities that will support and extend confident and open learning identities; and open out those learning identities that have turned to resistance or the seeming safety of repetition. For there are still too many young people who have either left school at 16, or who may be at school, but not engaged in it, and who are thus moving into adulthood with far less of the understanding, skills, and habits that they need for real participation and contribution in an increasingly complex world.

We are therefore most encouraged by our findings about how student engagement in learning is linked to the provision of the very kinds of learning opportunities that are also building the key competencies of the revised New Zealand Curriculum. These findings show a fruitful terrain for enriching the practices—and enjoyment—of both students and teachers in secondary schools, and through improving engagement, the achievement of a wider range of students.

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